January 10, 2024

Robert Donat and J.D. Salinger — Two Knights Without Armour

By Stuart Mitchner

Robert Donat may be the only movie star Holden Caulfield would ever think of calling on the phone. Donat, who plays Richard Hannay, the hero of Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The 39 Steps (1935), “could draw us further into himself by his very modesty,” according to David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film. Writing about Donat’s performance in Knight Without Armour (1937), another movie J.D. Salinger liked to show on his 16 mm projector, Graham Greene observed that he “is sensible, authentic, slow; emotion when it comes has the effect of surprise, like plebeian poetry.” In contrast to the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood that Holden hates, Donat has, in Greene’s words, an “invincible naturalness.”

In The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (Crown 1970), David Shipman calls Donat’s story “a heart-rending one,” using an adjective also favored by 7-year-old Seymour Glass in Salinger’s extraordinary, still unpublished novella, Hapworth 16, 1924, surely the longest, strangest letter home from camp ever written. What makes Donat’s story “heart-rending” is that this “highly gifted actor,” known “for a beautiful speaking voice and a quiet and diffident charm,” was plagued by chronic asthma. As Thomson points out, Donat’s “illustrious” career included only 19 films, due to the major roles he turned down because of “the profound tentativeness at the root of his stammer and nervous breathlessness.” Even so, in one of his least compelling parts, as the title character in Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Donat beat out Clark Gable for the Best Actor Oscar, thwarting Gone With the Wind’s sweep of the 1939 Academy Awards.

Speaking of Awards

This Tuesday’s extensive New York Times coverage of the 2024 Golden Globes gives me a chance to put a contemporary charge into my subject matter. In the course of watching vintage Bogart, Hitchcock, and film noir from the 1940s and 1950s last year, I was able to write about several of the “Big Winners” of 2023, namely Oppenheimer, Succession, and, to a lesser extent, Beef, winner for the Best Limited Series. Like the road rage-driven Globe-winning couple played by Steven Yeun and Ali Wong, the duo played by Robert Donat and Madeline Carroll in The 39 Steps some 88 years past is driven by a mutual negative attraction in which the need to survive a series of intimate, harrowing situations leads in the end to mutual trust and ultimately love. That said, there’s nothing in Hitchcock’s masterpiece comparable to the magnificent, survival-at-all-costs final episode of Beef.

Donat’s Three Women

Having admired Donat in The 39 Steps and Knight Without Armour (a title that suits him perfectly), my wife and I have watched a number of his films recently, eager to see more of someone who can cook dinner on the spot for a mysterious woman (Lucie Mannheim), as if he’d been born to fry kippers with a cigarette dangling from his mouth for secret agents whose lives are in danger. Another female Donat charms in The 39 Steps is the young wife of a religious fanatic whose remote Highlands cottage provides him shelter while he’s being pursued as the principal suspect in the mystery woman’s murder. The stillborn romance between Peggy Ashcroft and Donat is one of the most haunting sequences in all of Hitchcock.

Pamela, the third woman, played with great charm and vitality by Madeline Carroll, first briefly enters the story when Donat hops on a train with the police at his back and escapes into her compartment, where despite her struggles, he masks himself by kissing her long and hard and desperately. Later she turns him in, they’re handcuffed together, and what had been a pure thriller with some comic touches turns into an exhilaratingly contentious romance that could be called Hitchcock’s answer to Hollywood’s It Happened One Night.

Living in the Movie

J.D. Salinger’s well-known fondness for The 39 Steps spills over into his fiction when Holden Caulfield says of his little sister Phoebe, the second most important character in The Catcher in the Rye: “If you take her to a lousy movie, for instance, she knows it’s a lousy movie. If you take her to a pretty good movie, she knows it’s a pretty good movie.” As for The 39 Steps, “It killed her…. She knows the whole goddam movie by heart, because I’ve taken her to see it about ten times. When old Donat comes up to this Scotch farmhouse, for instance, when he’s running away from the cops and all, Phoebe’ll say right out loud in the movie — right when the Scotch guy in the picture says it — ‘Can you eat the herring?’ She knows all the talk by heart. And when this professor in the picture, that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the middle joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it — she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.”

“A Secret Language”

According to Margaret Salinger’s memoir Dream Catcher (2000), Salinger took Peggy and her younger brother Matt on a 39 Steps tour of Scotland during a two-week trip to the U.K. in 1968. The highlight of the drive through the Highlands was when a flock of sheep blocked the road, just as happens in the movie, allowing Donat and Carroll “to escape, handcuffed to each other, from their captor’s car.”

Apparently Salinger’s only disappointment on that mission into the heart of The 39 Steps was not being able to locate the desolate manse inhabited by the German spy with the missing finger joint. On a visit to Scotland years later, Peggy found “the very house, still with its lovely diamond windowpanes” and sent her father photographs she took of the place and of “the little stone bridge” where Donat and Carroll “hid by the stream.”

As Salinger says in her memoir, “Our shared world was not books, but rather, my father’s collection of reel-to-reel movies.”  The 39 Steps provided them with “a secret language.” As late as her senior year of high school, she would receive a postcard “saying simply, ‘There is a man in Scotland I must meet if anything is to be done. These men act quickly, quickly’—signed Annabella Smith, Alt-na Shelloch, Scotland.” Smith is the woman who takes refuge in Hannay’s flat, tells him of the spy ring known as the 39 Steps, and dies with a knife in her back as she hands him the map of Scotland on which the mastermind’s home base is circled in black.

Writing is a Journey

If any of Salinger’s self-described “prose home movies” of the Glass family are ever published, they are unlikely to include romantic adventures of the sort that Salinger found so diverting in The 39 Steps. My fond hope, however, is that a dashing, sympathetic, well-read, quietly forceful publishing-world equivalent to Robert Donat will show up to guide Salinger’s last works through the slings and arrows, reviewer trolls and traps, as wisely and courageously as Donat leads Marlene Dietrich’s Russian princess through the deadly chaos of Red and White armies in Knight Without Armour.

Still, you have to wonder what sent Salinger back to the same film again and again, vicariously handcuffed to a beautiful woman, sharing a night’s lodging with an unhappy young wife,  and cooking kippers for a spy who had only hours to live. One of the author’s female visitors in the 1980s, writing in Vanity Fair online, “thinks” she saw a note on his wall that read, “Love is a journey into the unknown.”

Margaret Salinger knows that writing was her father’s journey, which is why in the closing pages of Dream Catcher she turns to his fictional alter ego Buddy Glass, in Seymour: An Introduction, wherein he quotes a letter from Seymour recalling the time they were both signing up for the draft and Buddy wrote “writer” under profession: “When was writing ever your profession? It’s never been anything but your religion. Never…. Since it is your religion, do you know what you will be asked when you die? But let me tell you first what you won’t be asked. You won’t be asked if you were working on a wonderful, moving piece of writing when you died. You won’t be asked if it was long or short, sad or funny, published or unpublished … you’ll get asked only two questions. Were most of your stars out? Were you busy writing your heart out? If only you knew how easy it would be for you to say yes to both questions.”

Films Never Made

The wonder of Robert Donat is that despite a debilitating illness, “most of his stars were out” right up to his final role, the mandarin in The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (1958), played as he was dying, his last words on film: “It is time to go, old friends. Stay here … for a little. It will comfort me as I leave to know it. We shall not see each other again, I think. Farewell.” The roles Donat had to turn down due to illness included, according to David Thomson, Lawrence of Arabia, Peter Ibbetson, Romeo, Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, and the Chorus in Laurence Olivier’s Henry V — films that can only be imagined with Donat in the lead, just as the books J.D. Salinger wrote in the last 45 years of his life can as yet only be imagined.